Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #2: Introducing the Main Character

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First impressions are important. We decide within seconds whether or not we like someone. And something as simple as the circumstances under which we meet can have a huge influence over our opinion of someone. The same thing holds true for your novel’s characters.

If you’ve been around the querying block for a while, you might have gotten the dreaded rejection letter that states, “I didn’t connect with the character.” This can really hurt. Especially if you, like most writers, love your characters as if they’re your own flesh and blood. How could anyone not love them as much as you do?

It could be the character itself (I’ll get into that another time), but it could also be how you’re introducing the character. In other words, it could be a bad first impression.

To help you assess your protagonist’s first impression, here are some of the most common bad impressions of protagonists:

The Inactive Protagonist

This lazy-bones character just sort of sits around and watches conflict happen around him. He doesn’t try to get involved, but is content to stand on the sidelines. He stands in the shadows and says, “Hey, look, a conflict…I think I’ll just stay here in my shadow.”

The problem with the inactive protagonist is that he doesn’t draw readers into the story. We read books because we want to be dropped in the middle of a conflict from the comfort of our own homes. An inactive protagonist is a bore.

In a character introduction, an inactive protagonist will make readers wish they were reading the story from a different perspective. Anyone involved in a conflict (even the bad guy) is more interesting than someone who isn’t.

The Whiner

“Everything is terrible. Nobody likes me. I can’t do anything right. Blubber, blubber, whine, whine.”

Nobody wants to meet a character who’s sitting around feeling sorry for herself (I’m looking at you YA protagonists). People have the most sympathy for characters who tough things out and the least sympathy for those who throw their own pity party. At her best, the whiner seems angst ridden. At her worst, she elicits eye rolls.

In a character introduction, the whiner can actually cause the reader to identify with the antagonistic force. Because for whatever reason, when people are feeling sorry for themselves, we like to see their pity party get rained on.

The Contemplator

Also known as the window gazer, the coffee drinker, the cigarette smoker, and the sit-around-and-do-nothing-but-think-er.

Conveniently, this character usually thinks about the things the writer wants the reader to know about them, such as a laundry list of their most interesting character traits. The contemplator is boring because he does not draw the reader into the story by being interesting and proactive. The contemplator relies on his own thoughts as entertainment. There are very few characters that will ever be interesting enough to pull this off.

In a character introduction, the contemplator can come across as a weak, bland character unable to carry a plot and unworthy of the reader’s time.

The Historian

The historian is like the contemplator except that the only thing he thinks about is the past: how he met his best friend at seven, how he once got a girl pregnant, and how he found out that apple cinnamon Poptarts are the best.

The historian seems to think that his story can’t start until the reader hears all about everything that’s ever happened to him up to this point. This is a majorly boring drag because readers want to be swept up in the interesting and exciting conflict of the moment!

In a character introduction, the historian will likely be labeled an incurable info-dumper who will spend more time focusing on the past than on the conflict at hand.

The Proactive Protagonist

This is the gold-standard of protagonists. The one you should all be aiming for. She is actively engaged in conflicts. She fights for what she wants, and she never sits on the sidelines!

Readers love the proactive protagonist because she’s fascinating. We can root for her goals right alongside her. We get sucked into her story from the very first page. We almost feel like we are her while reading the story! How fun is that?

In a character introduction, the proactive protagonist lets the reader know that this story is definitely about her and that she will take charge of it from the very first scene to the last.

Note that taking charge of the story does not mean that the character has to be strong and confident. A weak, wimpy character can still be proactive. For example: hiding from bullies, trying to disguise magical abilities, cleaning the house to please an abusive partner.

The key is that the character must be doing something. And that something must be motivated by a desire (not getting beat up, not being discovered as magical, not getting yelled at, etc.).

How to Instantly Connect the Reader to Your Character

It’s entirely possible to have a proactive protagonist that the reader does not connect with. This is because pro-action is just one piece of creating the perfect character introduction. The other pieces are as follows:

  • Clearly identify a conflict. What stands in your character’s way? Readers will want to read on to discover how the conflict is resolved and that tension bonds the reader to the character.
  • Clearly identify what the character wants. We can all relate to desire, and rooting for a character is fun. So make sure the reader understands what the character is attempting to accomplish.
  • Clearly identify one really awesome character trait. Is your protagonist smart as a whip? Gentle as a breeze? Brave as a toaster? Let the reader know the protagonist’s super-cool trait as soon as they’re introduced. Ideally, they should be using this trait to overcome the conflict of the scene.
  • Clearly identify one really sucky character trait. What is their flaw? What will they need to overcome internally in order to resolve the novel’s central conflict? Ideally, this flaw should impact their introductory conflict in some way.

Homework: The Proactive Protagonist Introduction Questionnaire

Answer the following questions about the introduction of your protagonist:

  • Does your protagonist fit the profile of the proactive protagonist?
  • Do we meet your protagonist as she is engaging in a conflict?
  • Is your protagonist’s desire clear?
  • Is your protagonist’s awesome, most interesting character trait clear?
  • Is your protagonist’s suckiest, most terrible character trait clear?

If you answer no to any of these questions, brainstorm ways to rewrite your protagonist’s introduction so that it more clearly represents your character and creates a stronger connection with the reader.

Depending on your time commitment to Novel Boot Camp, rewrite your character introduction or take notes on what you plan to change when you have time for revisions.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

21 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #2: Introducing the Main Character

  1. Kimaowen says:

    Hi Ellen, thanks for the info! I’m wondering if you can share any examples of published works I can reference that do a great job of this? I’m struggling with making all of this known with the first introduction of my main character without making it an info dump. Thanks!

  2. Hades-uftg Tartarus says:

    I might be in the minority, but I can’t stand those strong characters that know-it-all, They irritate me to no end, specially those snarky teenage girls who look down on people and quote feminist nonsense they don’t know anything about. The worse ones are those teenager girl characters who beat up big guys, claiming they know some martial art.

    I, personally, prefer characters that grow with the story. The ones that have to battle their insecurities to triumph. I’m not saying I like whiners, but I like characters with heart. Characters that struggle to achieve something appeal more to me, than the characters that take everything by force as if it’s their divine right.

    Most agents advise writers to write the strong, story-driving characters. I get why. However, I write MG and I feel that young kids also identify with those wimpy kids that get taken advantage of by their older siblings or a cooler friend. That doesn’t mean I advocate for a weak MC. What I advocate is to give other types of characters a chance, specially in MG as not everybody is a Harry Potter who has a magical world to escape to.

  3. ccarmone says:

    My protagonist is kind of a teen super hero. Not like superman super hero, but he’s an extraordinary kid who uses advanced survival skills to get himself out of a lots sticky situations in the mountains. He’s mature for his age but there’s no doubt he’s a fourteen year old and he does make miscalculations that often gets him into deeper trouble spots.. My fear is, is it believable? My Beta reader thought he was kind of a know it all.

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